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Legal battles loom over will of former judgeTell North Platte what you think
 
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Earl Morgan

A feud between the late Judge Earl Morgan’s descendants and a favorite North Platte animal charity is being waged in Lincoln County Court.

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In his will, the former Lincoln County District Judge left the bulk of his estimated $3.2 million estate to Paws-itive Partners Humane Society.

Morgan’s two remaining children – Bob Morgan and Dorothy Simants – are contesting the will and willing to wage battle in court to hold onto their father’s estate.

In a filing petition to set aside the informal probate of the will, they claim Morgan was “susceptible to the exercise of undue influence because of his advanced age and physical and mental condition” when he signed his final will May 5, 2006.

Morgan would have been 87-years-old then.

“The execution of the will was procured by the exercise of undue influence by a representative of Paws-itive Partners Humane Society …” according to the petition filed by North Platte attorney George Vinton. The petition said that the disposition of Morgan’s assets was not his decision but that he was influenced. The petition asks that a judge deny probate.

Morgan did not have sufficient mental capacity to understand the terms and provisions of his will and did not know the extent of his property and did not understand what would happen to the land according to the will, the petition said.

The petition says Morgan’s will is “void and unenforceable” and should be ruled invalid.

The petition also seeks to remove long-time North Platte attorney Charles W. Baskins as the estate’s personal representative and replace him with Dorothy Simants, Morgan’s daughter.

The next court hearing is scheduled for Jan. 20, 2008.


The man

Morgan died June 20 at his home with his family by his side. He was 89 when he passed away.

Morgan was Lincoln County Judge from 1977-87, when he retired. His passing left many attorneys who practiced before his bench with fond memories.

Morgan was born to Earl Edward and Ruth Nisley Duval on August 9, 1918 at O’Fallons on the Birge Ranch. After his mother’s remarriage to Guy Morgan, and then her untimely death, Morgan was raised by his grandmother Mae Belle Nisley in the North Platte area. Morgan graduated from North Platte High School in 1937. He then married Margaret Jane Beatty in 1938 and started college at the University of Nebraska Law School.

Morgan worked at Robert’s dairy to support his family while he attended law school. His education was interrupted as he served in Germany in World War II.

Morgan was in Italy when he was struck in the head by a multi-purpose German 88-mm anti-aircraft/anti-tank gun. He was lucky to have survived. He spent more than a year in an Army hospital and was released with a metal plate on his skull.

Morgan returned to Nebraska and law school and graduated in 1947. They moved back to North Platte where he practiced law with the Beatty Law Firm, later becoming a partner.

Morgan was appointed to the Lincoln County Court Judge bench in 1977 and practiced law there for 10 years until he retired in 1987.

Morgan loved horses and dogs and was very active in 4-H. He announced at Arabian, Quarterhorse, and 4-H horse shows, in which he was honored for his many years of service.

Morgan loved his home and his chores, but gave up raising quarter horses years ago.


A legacy of law

Bob Lindemeier, Lincoln County Public Defender, said he learned to think on his feet in Morgan’s courtroom.

“He was the county judge when I moved to North Platte in 1985,” Lindemeier said. Lindemeier had worked as a prosecutor in the County Attorney’s office and prosecuted criminals before Morgan.

“He had a way of scaring the daylights out of young attorneys,” Lindemeier said. “It was only later that I learned his bark was worse than his bite.”

Lindemeier remembered Morgan as a “very personable” man.

“He was always telling about his war experiences,” Lindemeier said. “He loved to tell stories about when he was a practicing attorney.”

“I always found him interesting,” Lindemeier said. “He had this way about him.”

Lindemeier said his favorite story about Morgan was when a defendant pleaded guilty for disturbing the peace in his courtroom. The man had gone into a local business and had threatened to beat up the owner.

“But Judge Morgan didn’t like the owner of that business,” Lindemeier said.

So when Judge Morgan found the man guilty, he fined him $25, and then told him he was only fining him at all because the man didn’t beat up the business owner.

Attorneys that were on the wrong side of Morgan’s rulings called it being “Morganized.”

Former North Platte attorney Ron Ruff recalled a humorous moment in Morgan’s courtroom while defending a client for drunken driving.

Ruff said the defendant had swerved across several lanes to turn into the Cedar Bowl. An officer used the swerve to stop him and arrested the driver for drunken driving.

Ruff filed a motion to suppress the traffic stop and thus, have the charges thrown out. He knew Morgan drove a big motor home and had likely made wide turns across several lanes of traffic turning into parking lots.

Ruff was questioning the young officer.

“Do you mean to tell me that if a big old motor home is trying to make a right turn into a parking lot and swerves into another lane of traffic to make the tight turn …” Ruff began to ask.

Kent Turnbull, then the Lincoln County Attorney, began objecting like crazy.

But Morgan, who had perked up when he heard Ruff’s question, overruled the objection.

“I want to hear the answer,” Morgan said.

The ploy worked. Morgan, who had had similar experiences turning his big motor home, threw the evidence out and the accused drunken driver got off.

Ruff remembered another case where Morgan made his point judiciously. A suspect was accused of confessing to a crime during a police interview. Ruff, who was defending the man, asked the investigator why the confession had not been recorded on tape.

“This is the era of tape recordings,” Ruff said. “Why don’t the police record confessions so we could know once and for all who was telling the truth?”

Morgan agreed, but found the suspect guilty anyway. Then the judge addressed the investigating officer who was still in the courtroom.

“You tell the chief that I want confessions recorded from now on,” Morgan told the investigator.

“You tell him,” the investigator said to the judge.

“Very well then,” Morgan said. “I find the defendant not guilty.”

“Now, you tell the chief that,” Morgan said.

Leonard Vyhnalek, who was a partner with Morgan for 12 years before he was appointed as the Lincoln County Judge by former Gov. Jim Exon, said Morgan was one of the best school lawyers in the western part of the state.

“It didn’t surprise me that he left his estate to Paws-itive Partners,” Vyhnalek said. “He had a big heart. It wouldn’t have surprised me if he left his estate to the American Quarterhorse Association.”


The will

It surprised his surviving son and daughter. Another son, Ed Morgan, also died this year.

Morgan’s will left the sum of $100,000 each to his children – Bob Morgan and Dorothy Simants. It combined the rest of Morgan’s assets into a trust fund for Bob and Dorothy, to provide proper support, maintenance, education, medical and hospital expenses and nursing home care if necessary for the rest of their lives.

As each die, the trust ends.

The will calls for the trustee not to sell any land or real estate Morgan owned for five years following his death.

Even though Morgan had 11 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren, he “intentionally” made no provisions for any of them in the will.

The will states that as each trust terminates upon the death of his children, the remaining estate and assets should be paid to Paws-itive Partners. The will says that if Paws-itive Partners is not longer in existence, then the trustee should choose another charitable organization to donate the estate to.

Diane Morales of Paws-itive Partners said they were shocked when they heard the contents of Morgan’s will.

Tim Brouillette, attorney for Paws-itive Partners, declined to comment on the case since it is still in litigation but did say that they hoped to carry out Judge Morgan’s wishes as he listed in his will.

Paws-itive Partners Humane Society, Inc., is a small, local charity, formed in 1998 by a group of animal lovers to promote responsible pet ownership, implement spay/neuter programs in order to control pet overpopulation, promote the adoption of homeless animals and to support the North Platte Animal Shelter in its efforts.

Paws-itive Partners is a non-profit 501 (c) 3 corporation and is comprised of volunteers who wish to better the lives of animals. They have no paid directors and do not pay any administrative or fundraising fees. Money raised by Paws-itive Partners stays in North Platte and surrounding communities to help needy animals.

Paws-itive Partners also spearheads adoptions and offers medical assistance, rescue and transports, and even provided a bullet-proof vest for the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office police dog.

Paws-itive Partners is separate from the North Platte Animal Shelter and receives no city or government funds to operate. They rely solely on member dues, adoption fees, fundraising and donations to operate.

Morales said Morgan used to donate every year but in small amounts as most of their donors do. She said they knew Morgan was a dog lover but were shocked to learn he had left his considerable estate to them.

But volunteers Morales and Jo Maber said they weren’t counting their money yet.

“We have always gotten by on our small donations,” Morales said. “We haven’t seen one red cent of Morgan’s money and might not for years. We want to remind people to keep donating because we have to keep operating.”

And, besides, Paws-itive Partners has been promised an estate before then was written out.


Naked caper gets national attention

Paws-itive Partners Humane Society found a winning formula 10 years ago when they talked then Mayor Jim Whitaker to walk “Naked” through downtown if the group raised $5,000.

The kicker, of course, is that Whitaker would walk a dog named Naked, not be nude himself.

The group was raising money for the spay/neuter program and wanted to get attention.

Boy, did they. Their play on words worked better than anyone could have imagined.

The word quickly traveled throughout the state, then the nation and finally the world that the Mayor of North Platte agreed to walk “Naked” if the group met it’s fundraising goal.

Word spread like wildfire and North Platte Police Chief Martin Gutschenritter said he received numerous calls that day wondering why Whitaker’s walk wouldn’t be indecent exposure and illegal.

The Associated Press picked up the story and ran it across the country. The story was featured on CNN.

Whitaker, who was out of town for a meeting, returned immediately when he heard the firestorm that had erupted.

The group had planned to reveal the joke later but hastily called a news conference to explain the bare facts of the promotion.

Whitaker said at the time that he wished he’d explained it to his mother before it hit the news.

Some people thought it tasteless, others thought it funny but it more than accomplished its goal – the group shattered its goal of $5,000 and raised more than $12,000 with donations coming in from across the country.

An animal-loving couple from Bethlehem, Penn., read the story and got interested in Paws-itive Partners. They also donated to the cause.

In 2002, Marvin and Marie Spivak offered to bequeath their home and possessions to Paws-Itive Partners Humane Society. The estimated value of the home and property was more than $750,000.

The Spivaks were both in their 80s. Both served in the military in World War II, and Marvin Spivak stopped at the North Platte Canteen as a young man in a troop train.

In 2006 they rescinded that offer after news reports surfaced about the number of animals killed at the North Platte Animal Shelter.

Morales said at the time that the group is grateful for all the Spivaks’ donations through the years. She said they have donated several thousand dollars to the group in the last eight years.

The irony was that Paws-itive Partners had hoped to build a no-kill shelter with the funds.

Still, she said, the group is philosophical.

“We won’t miss what we never had to begin with,” Morales said.


Legal issues

Legal experts said it was often difficult to get a will’s intent overturned.

But Vinton and Jim Nisley, who represent Dorothy Simants, intend to try.

There have been some negotiations between the surviving family and Paws-itive Partners and a settlement offer in the $150,000 range from the family was not accepted by the charity.

The will has other issues.

Baskins began the will then was admitted to Linden Manor and North Platte attorney Dave Pederson completed it. The way the will is written does not allow any charitable deduction. The entire estate is subject to federal and state estate taxes, which could be as high as $1.2 million combined, attorney suggested. That could be about one-third the value of the entire estate.

And the federal estate tax must by paid March 20, 2009.

In a hearing before Lincoln County Judge Kent Florom Dec. 8, there were five attorneys representing all the estate’s interested parties.

It appeared there was only one thing they could all agree on, the will was a mess and it was going to take time to sort it out, time they don’t necessarily have.


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The North Platte Bulletin - Published 12/18/2008
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